Toyota Motor Co. president Fujio Cho expects 'hybrids', i.e. cars powered by petrol-electric engine combinations, to become a pillar of low-pollution transport as air-quality laws get stricter and demand for fuel efficiency grows, according to Bloomberg News.

Toyota was the first car maker to launch a hybrid car, rolling out the four-door, four-seat Prius saloon in Japan in 1997. The model has since been introduced in Europe and the USA and worldwide sales have now passed the 50,000 mark. Honda Motor Co. has also launched a hybrid car, the Insight two-door, two-seat coupe.

Bloomberg News quoted Cho as saying that Toyota plans to unveil more hybrid models after it releases a version of the Estima (Previa) minivan with a low-pollution, petrol-electric engine early this year.

"We hope to develop two to three hybrid systems and offer as many models as we can," he told Bloomberg.

Toyota also plans to release hybrids with bigger engines than the four-cylinder, 1.5-litre petrol engine used in the Prius, Cho said.

In addition to hybrids, which offer on average twice the fuel efficiency of cars with standard engines, Cho said that car makers were focusing on small cars to meet customers' demand for fuel efficiency.

He told Bloomberg News that the Vitz/Echo/Yaris subcompact was the company's global small-car platform. Toyota will begin assembling the model at a new plant in Valenciennes, northern France, this month, mainly for the European market, where the model is the company's best-seller.

Toyota also plans to develop an efficient small-car engine in the 800cc to 850cc range with mini-car subsidiary Daihatsu Motor Co. Daihatsu is 51 percent owned by Toyota and is Japan's second largest maker of minis after Suzuki Motor Corp.

Toyota Motor Co. president Fujio Cho

"Daihatsu has the expertise for small cars," Cho told Bloomberg News. "We'll discuss this with them and work out our roles."

Car makers are also racing to develop cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, another low-pollution technology. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity with little other than water vapour as a by-product.

"Reasonably priced fuel cell vehicles will be released in 2010 at the earliest," Cho said.

For that reason, hybrids are the best option to meet new environmental regulations.

Toyota, which last year said it would join a fuel cell research partnership organised by California, planned to develop a fuel-cell test-car by 2003, Cho said.

Toyota was hoping to work closely with affiliates such as Daihatsu and Hino Motors, Japan's biggest truck maker, to offer cleaner vehicles 'instead of forming equity alliances with foreign companies'.

As part of efforts to bring those cleaner products to market, Cho told Bloomberg News, Toyota could establish a fuel cell technology planning division and information technology management division, pooling resources across its affiliates and group companies.

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